Emails reveal how accuracy was scrubbed out of Benghazi 'talking points'
by Rowan Scarborough
As the hour grew late on the night of Sept. 14, the White House wanted to make one thing clear to the State Department and the CIA as the three collaborated on what would come to be known as the Benghazi "talking points," designed to be used by Congress and administration officials to explain what had happened three days earlier at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
The attack, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, was not planned, White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote in an 8:54 p.m. email.
"There is massive disinformation out there," Mr. Vietor wrote. "They all think it was premeditated based on inaccurate assumptions or briefings. So I think this is a response to not only a tasking from the house intel committee but also [National Security Council] guidance that we need to brief members/press and correct the record."
The initial talking points ran six paragraphs long and said the crowd was a mix of individuals, but "that being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida participated in the attack." The talking points went on to recount attacks against other countries' diplomatic missions in Benghazi and raised the prospect that the U.S. facilities were "previously surveilled" in anticipation of the attack.
By the time the talking points were approved a day later, they had been reduced to three paragraphs and any hint of terrorists or planning had been scrubbed. The final version said the attack was the culmination of "demonstrations" that were "spontaneously inspired" by protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier Sept. 11, though it did acknowledge "indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations."
Benghazi and the administration's talking points have not gone away as an issue for Republicans.
On Tuesday, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, delivered a floor speech on the need for a special committee to answer several questions. He said he plans a series of statements and letters to the State Department to garner more information before the August recess.
"Perhaps the most telling sign of the incomplete state of the Benghazi investigation is the fact that not one of the survivors of the Benghazi attacks — from the consulate or the [CIA] annex — have publicly testified before Congress," Mr. Wolf said. "Despite nearly a full year of multiple committee investigations, not one witness has been brought before a committee to publicly testify under oath about what happened that night."
On Thursday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs will hold a hearing on what Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and committee chairman, calls "inadequacies" in the State Department's accountability review board and its report on Benghazi security failures.
A page-by-page examination of administration emails documenting the editing of the talking points shows a final product that got the facts wrong, but dovetailed with President Obama's campaign-mode narrative that a mob angry over an American video committed the attack.
The document has become the centerpiece of a Washington scandal, as Republicans charge that the White House attempted to cover up what really happened so as not to harm the president's re-election chances. Obama supporters say the exercise was standard interagency back-and-forth discussion as all sides tried to reach agreement on the facts.
Some findings from the pages of emails released by the White House on May 16:
• Obama aides ignored or discounted mounting evidence that the attack was planned — not, as they asserted, a spontaneous violent protest over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.
• During the exchange of emails, the FBI said al Qaeda was involved in the assault, yet the words "al Qaeda" were deleted from an early draft and never reinserted.
• State Department political appointees worked to delete any language that suggested there were warnings of an attack, saying it would leave Foggy Bottom open to criticism from Congress. (Congressional hearings later would show that the embassy in Tripoli had sent memos warning of increased violence and asking for more security.)
• An early CIA draft did not mention a protest at the mission in Benghazi. But by Friday afternoon, the word "demonstrations" was added twice, leaving the public to believe that random protesters were to blame for the attack.
• That initial draft also had errors. It said the attacks were inspired spontaneously by the protests in Cairo — an assertion that turned out most likely to be untrue.
The CIA began drafting talking points the morning of Sept. 14.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus had met over coffee with members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who wanted an unclassified report, or talking points, to give the press and public. Mr. Petraeus returned to CIA headquarters at Langley and started a drafting process that would occupy senior officials into the night.
At the CIA, hours after the attack, there was near unanimous opinion that Ansar al-Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked Islamic group, was responsible, an informed source told The Washington Times. CIA officers had been in Libya for months, had good contacts with various militias and were tracking Ansar al-Sharia.
What was murky was whether there was some type of protest at the same time. It was unclear at best. Neither the Benghazi mission nor the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli reported a demonstration. (The U.S. deputy chief of mission in Tripoli would tell Congress later that there was no protest and that no one in Libya talked about the video. He said no one at State consulted with him about the talking points.)
At 3 p.m. on Sept. 14, the CIA circulated one of the early drafts that reflected Mr. Petraeus' desire to say as much as possible and put the attack in historical context.
The draft document said the attack was "spontaneous," spurred by protests in Cairo, but did not say there was a demonstration at the mission. It continued: "We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in the attack."
The draft mentioned that Ansar al-Sharia was attempting to spread jihad in eastern Libya and had posted a Facebook note not denying involvement.
It further noted previous plans for attacks in Benghazi against Western targets, including the British ambassador's convoy. It also suggested that the mission had been surveilled, meaning the attack was planned.
Some in the CIA directorate objected to blaming extremists linked to al Qaeda without more evidence.
Nonetheless, the first version of the talking points would prove to be highly accurate.
Yet few of its words would survive, especially once State Department political appointees and the White House joined the discussion. What is not known is what was said in conversations outside the email exchanges among State, CIA and the White House as edits were made and the final product took shape.
At 3:04 p.m., CIA public affairs sent the draft to the White House's Mr. Vietor, who had been an aide to Mr. Obama in the Senate and worked in the White House press office before moving to become NSC spokesman. Also on the list was Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication.
That version did not assert there was a protest and said Islamic extremists linked to al Qaeda participated in the attack.
The word 'demonstrations' appears
At 4:42 p.m. inside the CIA, a major change happened.
The word "demonstrations" showed up twice in the first and second paragraphs of a draft as a fact that day in Benghazi. The words "al Qaeda" were removed. The emails do not indicate who inserted the pivotal word "demonstrations."
Also added was the fact that the CIA sent a report Sept. 10 warning that jihadists were threatening to attack the embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, the 11th anniversary of al Qaeda's attacks on America.
Still included was the language that "Islamic extremists" were involved. Language that had been added underscored that the CIA had been warning in reports to the administration "on the threat of extremists linked to al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya."
State gets on the email train
At 6:33 p.m., CIA public affairs sent the first draft to the State Department's public affairs office, then headed by Victoria Nuland, whom Mr. Obama has since tapped as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, pending Senate confirmation.
A career diplomat, Ms. Nuland has served under Democratic and Republican presidents, and was a national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Ms. Nuland would play a major role in altering the document.
At 7:16 p.m., she asked the CIA how it knew extremists attacked.
At 7:39 p.m., she told the CIA and the White House that she did not want to blame Ansar al-Sharia. "Why do we want [Capitol] Hill to be fingering Ansar al Shariah, when we aren't doing that ourselves?"
She also objected to the language on CIA warnings, saying the words "could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that either? Concerned."
At 8:43 p.m., Mr. Vietor weighed in with an email to Ms. Nuland and Jacob Sullivan, then deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and now national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
"There is massive disinformation out there, in particular with Congress," Mr. Vietor wrote. "They all think it was premeditated based on inaccurate assumptions or briefings. So I think this is a response to not only a tasking from the house intel committee but also [National Security Council] guidance that we need to brief members/press and correct the record."
At 8:59 p.m., the CIA public affairs office sent Ms. Nuland a new version. The CIA held its ground, continuing to blame Islamic extremists and noting its warnings to the administration.
At 9:23 p.m., Ms. Nuland rejected the version. "These don't resolve all my issues or those of my building leadership," she wrote. She said the unidentified "leadership" was consulting with the White House. The emails do not disclose those conversations.
At 9:25 p.m., Mr. Sullivan told Ms. Nuland that he was talking to Mr. Vietor. "We'll work through this in the morning," he said.
At 9:52 p.m., public affairs told Mr. Petraeus that the redrafting had "run into major problems."
In between this exchange, at 9:43 p.m., CIA congressional affairs told other agency offices that the FBI said al Qaeda was involved in the attack.
At 10:42 p.m., the CIA fully capitulated with a lined-out version. Gone was the Sept. 10 warning from the CIA, any reference to Islamic extremists and any reference to CIA warnings about violence in eastern Libya.
One administration official in the email chain said the Sept. 10 warning was deleted because "they seemed to encourage the reader to infer incorrectly that the CIA had warned about a specific attack on our embassy."
Ms. Nuland said in the emails that she was worried about how she would respond to reporters asking how the U.S. was sure extremists were involved.
"I'll need answers to those if we deploy that line," she wrote.
At 9:47 a.m., the CIA Directorate of Intelligence, the agency's analytical branch, sent to the CIA's Office of Terrorism Analysis, public affairs and the White House a whittled-down, low-information set of talking points.
It blamed the attack on "demonstrations." There was no mention of Islamic extremists, al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia or CIA warnings.
At a Saturday meeting of deputies — the No. 2 officials at Cabinet departments involved in national security — a final product emerged that reinserted the word "extremists."
At 12:51 p.m., CIA public affairs sent the scrubbed words to Mr. Petraeus, who wanted more information released to the public to help explain how four Americans — Stevens, his aide Sean Smith and two former Navy SEALs turned security officers — had perished that day.
At 2:27 p.m., Mr. Petraeus expressed his displeasure, wondering why there was no mention of the Sept. 10 cable to Cairo warning of an attack the next day — an event that did happen.
"Frankly, I'd just as soon not use this," he replied, but added that a decision would be up to the White House.
The talking points were sent to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice, who was chosen to be the face of the administration for the first post-attack Sunday talk shows. That Sunday, Sept. 16, she repeatedly blamed the attack on the anti-Muslim YouTube video — an assertion not in any version of the talking points. Mr. Obama would repeat the video argument in a speech to the United Nations later that month.
At the White House on Sept. 18, press secretary Jay Carney said: "I'm saying that based on information that we — our initial information, and that includes all information — we saw no evidence to back up claims by others that this was a pre-planned or premeditated attack, that we saw evidence that it was sparked by the reaction to this video."
On Oct. 9, on the evening of the first investigative congressional hearing on Benghazi, the State Department convened a conference call with reporters to express its new position, saying there was no protest that day linked to any video. Asked why that had been the administration story line, an unidentified official said, "That was not our conclusion."
Mr. Vietor did not respond to a message from The Washington Times seeking comment on his role.
The White House has maintained publicly that the talking points were based on the best intelligence at the time, and officials point to the erroneous claim in the initial draft that the assault was inspired by the Egyptian protests as evidence for how fluid the information was.
But Mr. Carney has acknowledged that the talking points Ms. Rice ended up using were inaccurate.
"It is absolutely true that that assessment turned out to be wrong. What is also true is what we have maintained from the beginning, that that assessment was made by and drafted by the CIA, the intelligence community. And when it proved not to be the case, we acknowledged that," he said.
Congressional Republicans say the White House is withholding other emails that would provide a clear picture of how the talking points were edited. Mr. Carney would not commit to releasing more, citing a right of the executive branch not to disclose confidential discussions to Congress.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has called Mr. Carney a "paid liar." He has issued subpoenas to the State Department for "all documents and communications" on how it influenced the CIA's first draft talking points.
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